Monarchical nostalgia: A grand illusion

Many Egyptians long for the days of the monarchy and mourn the loss of refined sensibilities associated with a cultured and cosmopolitan aristocracy ruled that ruled the country before the 1952 revolution. They compare that era to the present, in which the nouveau riche have adopted the worst values of Western capitalism and exhibit egregious forms of tyranny, ignorance and corruption.

Such nostalgia is understandable in times of crisis and social breakdown on the grounds that a monarchy seems the best of two evils. But a return to the past should not be seen as a panacea for the current problems of Egypt and the Arab world. Such thinking threatens to undermine the Egyptian people’s most significant achievement of the 20th century–the establishment of a republic which holds the prospect for a true democracy.

Transition to democracy is unimaginable in the Arab world’s monarchies, even those that provide a larger margin of freedom than their republican counterparts. Due to various cultural and social factors, democracy under monarchical systems will always remain circumscribed. In Egypt, however, we have a real opportunity to construct a modern democratic republic that outshines the authoritarian pluralism practiced by both the region’s republics and monarchies.

In reality, seeking salvation through a return to the monarchy is like looking for deliverance in Salafism, American intervention, an Islamic state, or armed resistance à la Hezbollah. Supporters of such escapisms claim that they offer a solution to the region’s crises, when in reality they only encourage us to waste our energies chasing after the unattainable.

Moreover, if any of these visions were actually realized, we would be cursed with a political system worse than the one we have now.

Many Egyptians have a bizarre understanding of the monarchical period before the revolution, associating it with a liberal political system. The truth however is that those who adopted liberal principles during the 1930s and 1940s were usually political dissidents who belonged to Egypt’s nationalist movement and opposed the king. Liberalism was not a product of the monarchy, but of its challengers.

Egypt is threatened not only by the growing incompetence of the ruling regime, but also by weak alternatives. Egypt has failed to benefit, politically or economically, from ending its state of conflict with Israel after the 1973 War and entering into the American-allied moderate camp. Ironically, all of this occurred just as Egyptian society began to shun any positive interaction with the outside world and new ideas of peaceful and democratic struggle. No democratic values or new visions for international cooperation were introduced during the period of Egypt’s so-called Open Door policies in the late 1970s. Instead, Egyptian society plunged into a political and cultural coma and became incapable of setting its course by by assessing different options prevalent in the outside world.

The paradox is that during periods in which Egypt’s political elite were locked in a struggle with the West (the 1930s and 40s when the Wafd party tried to shake off British colonialism, or the 1950s and 60s when Nasser’s regime took on America’s growing influence in the region), Egyptian society was more modern and democratic than it is now under Western support. To confront externally-induced challenges and pressures during the former decades, building a healthy society was an urgent imperative. Strong administrative, industrial and educational foundations were created, even if Egypt failed to build democratic institutions.

The failure of Egypt’s current regime–which aims, above all else, to preserve the status quo–should not be mistakenly attributed to the lack of democracy but to the fact that it has ruined state institutions. As a result, some advocate a reversion to past forms of rule as a more viable way forward than reforming the modern republican political system.

As power succession schemes are being openly deliberated–for example, the recent street poster campaign for Gamal Mubarak–Egyptians of different political persuasions should make clear their stand on this question. Our belief in the republic as a form of government–a conviction which unites Egyptians from across the political spectrum–should prompt us to reject any plans for a power transfer to the president’s son and disavow monarchy as a solution.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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